More Evidence That Chemicals Are Making You Fat

By Emily Main

Sure, it looks healthy, but contaminants in the water and in the plastic could be leading to obesity.

It's true that unhealthy diets full of processed foods are at the heart of America's obesity epidemic. But it could be that the chemicals we encounter every day are doing something to help keep our bellies ever expanding.

A number of studies have suggested that hormone-disrupting chemicals, such as bisphenol A, phthalates, and certain pesticides, are interfering with the way our bodies produce the blood-sugar-regulating hormone insulin, increasing the likelihood that people become obese and diabetic.

And the evidence is mounting. Last January, the government's National Toxicology Program met to review the science on environmental chemicals and obesity and diabetes, and the panelists published their review in this month's issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.

Read More: Does This Chemical Make Me Look Fat? 'Obesogens' Lurk All Around Us

After reviewing hundreds of studies, they did notice some links between certain chemicals, obesity, and type 2 diabetes, suggesting that chemicals can increase obesity risk by altering how your neurons regulate feeding behavior. That, combined with a high-calorie, high-fat, high-carb diet, could spell even more trouble for our waistlines.

The panelists focused on seven chemicals or classes of chemicals in their research. Maternal smoking and nicotine were considered the strongest predictors of obesity, based on existing science. The group also found enough evidence to support a link between obesity and arsenic, a heavy metal that winds up in drinking water as well as apple juice, and persistent organic pollutants (POPs), a class of chemicals that includes toxic compounds such as DDT and PCBs. Less clear was the obesity/diabetes link between bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical used in plastics, canned food, and cash-register receipts, and pesticides. Though a number of animal studies have looked at these chemicals' role in diabetes and obesity, there wasn't enough strong evidence for the panelists to draw many conclusions.

Read More: The Surprising New Cause of Weight Gain

In the same issue of Environmental Health Perspectives, Danish researchers published the results of a study involving 665 pregnant women and their children. The researchers measured levels of a chemical called PFOA in the mothers when they were pregnant and then compared those with their children's body weights 20 years later. Mothers who'd had the highest levels of PFOA were three times as likely to have overweight or obese daughters than mothers with the lowest levels. They didn't seem to notice the same weight gain in sons.

Finally, phthalates, another class of chemicals studied by the National Toxicology Program, were fingered in yet another study as a potential obesity trigger. The panel noted that the strongest evidence to show phthalates cause problems was with diethyl phthalate, which is used in plastics and in synthetic fragrances, and that same phthalate was associated with higher body mass index in minority girls aged 6 to 8.

Read More: Certain Plastics Could Cause Childhood Obesity

Protect yourself from any of these potential "obesogens" with a few simple tips:

• Go organic to avoid pesticides.

• Ditch plastic as much as you can, particularly in your kitchen. Opt for glass or stainless steel containers and cookware, and never microwave food in plastic.

• Avoid any article of clothing or furniture treatment advertised as "water repellant" or "stain resistant." It's probably been coated with a chemical that could break down into PFOA.

• Replace any nonstick pans you have with safer alternatives, such as cast iron and stainless steel, to keep PFOA from packing on the pounds.

• Get a water filter certified to remove arsenic, and eat whole fruits and leave juices on the shelf, to lessen your exposure.

• Keep yourself away from BPA by nixing canned food from your diet and never buying plastics marked with the "#7" in the recycling triangle. Also, try to keep receipts out of your wallet; store them in a separate envelope or plastic bag. BPA is used as a coating.

Environmental Health News
Abstract of Environmental Research 112(1)
Environmental Health Perspectives
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Note: The Rodale Research Feed features new research findings that may include preliminary or unconfirmed results. Check with a healthcare provider, or an appropriate advisor you trust, before making any significant changes based on these reports.

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